- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani border region struggling against Taliban and al Qaeda militants will distribute 30,000 rifles to villagers in hopes that local militias can help the provincial government regain control, a top official said Sunday.

The announcement from the North West Frontier Province came after Pakistan’s government announced a seemingly conflicting deal in the Swat Valley — a Taliban stronghold within the province — to impose Islamic law if the extremists stop fighting.

Pakistan has sought to allay the concerns of U.S. and NATO, whose troops face an escalating Taliban insurgency in nearby Afghanistan, that a peace deal would create a militant haven.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Saturday he would try to “remove the apprehensions of the world community” about the Swat deal in meetings with U.S. officials in Washington next week, the state-run news agency reported.

Village militias backed by the United States have been credited with reducing violence in Iraq. A similar initiative is under way in Afghanistan.

The United States is spending millions of dollars on programs to stiffen Pakistan’s security forces in the rugged frontier region, though there was no sign it was involved in the militia plan. A U.S. Embassy spokesman could not be reached for comment.

It was also unclear if the embattled North West Frontier Province government’s plan had the backing of national leaders — or if handing out arms in a region already awash with weapons would help.

Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister of the provincial government, said authorities would distribute the guns among “peaceful groups and individuals” so they could help police to guard their villages.

Officials would consult with local police chiefs before handing out the arms and would take them back if they were not used against “terrorists and troublemakers,” Hoti’s office said in a written statement.

Hoti said the guns were on hand, having been seized from “terrorists and anti-state elements.” He also approved a plan for an elite provincial police unit of 2,500 officers and said the province would meet the $40 million cost.

The militia plan raises doubts about the coherence of Pakistani efforts to counter Taliban groups who have seized growing pockets of the northwest, forged links with al Qaeda and carried out a blur of suicide bombings.

Pakistani officials have encouraged residents to establish militias in the semiautonomous tribal areas sandwiched between the North West Frontier Province and the Afghan border.

The pro-Western central government says it will come down hard on groups who refuse to renounce violence and stop supporting cross-border terrorism in return for reconciliation.

Federal officials insisted they have not handed out any weapons in the tribal areas, and appeared to be caught cold by Sunday’s announcement.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said it had not been consulted about giving weapons to village militias. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, supposedly in charge of national law and order issues, also was unaware of the plan.

The provincial government did not say when the weapons would be handed out, or if villagers would be armed in the Swat valley, where security forces and Taliban militants are observing a week-old cease-fire while seeking a peace accord.

Earlier Sunday, Taliban gunmen abducted a senior government official and six of his security guards in Swat, demonstrating their unbroken hold in the valley after seeing off a yearlong offensive by the army.

A Taliban spokesman said after several hours that the official, Khushal Khan, had been released, only to backtrack late Sunday.

Spokesman Muslim Khan said the official would be freed “soon,” but that his abduction was a warning to the provincial authorities, who he alleged had arrested two Taliban members in violation of the cease-fire.

“We wanted to show the government that we can also taken action against it,” he said.

The provincial government has sent a hard-line cleric to persuade the Swat Taliban to renounce violence in return for the introduction of elements of Islamic law.

Officials say the legal concessions meet long-standing demands for speedy justice in Swat and fall far short of the harsh version of Islamic law favored by Taliban militants.

Associated Press writer Sherin Zada in Mingora contributed to this report.

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